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Zunino going in 'right direction at right time'

@juanctoribio
July 15, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays made the decision to sign Mike Zunino to a one-year, $4.5 million deal over the offseason to avoid arbitration, the organization made it clear that it was betting on the 29-year-old catcher having a bounce-back season in 2020. There’s no denying that 2019 was

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays made the decision to sign Mike Zunino to a one-year, $4.5 million deal over the offseason to avoid arbitration, the organization made it clear that it was betting on the 29-year-old catcher having a bounce-back season in 2020.

There’s no denying that 2019 was a disappointing first season with Tampa Bay for Zunino, and possibly the worst offensive campaign of his career. He hit a career-low .165 and finished with just nine home runs, the fewest since he hit five during his rookie year in '13. His underlying numbers didn’t paint a kinder picture.

Zunino’s barrel percentage (11.6), average exit velocity (88.6 mph) and expected batting average (.194) were the lowest since his rookie season. His Sweet Spot percentage (26.8) was the lowest of his career. Zunino worked with hitting coach Chad Mottola and assistant hitting coach Ozzie Timmons to reconfigure his swing. The biggest adjustment for Zunino was his body positioning and fixing his base. Over the last three months, he continued to work on the adjustments, and the efforts are starting to pay off.

“I’ve been working a lot with [Mottola] just trying to get everything we were able to sort of get going during spring,” Zunino said. “The biggest thing has been timing, but just trying to get caught up in this abbreviated Spring Training to hit the ground running for the season.”

Zunino has been one of the first players on the field during workouts, almost immediately going to one of the batting cages down the right- or left-field line. That work paid off on Wednesday as the catcher hit two home runs in a simulated game.

In his first at-bat, Zunino hit a long -- and loud -- home run on a Sean Gilmartin breaking ball. Later in the day, Zunino worked a long at-bat against Shane McClanahan, which ultimately ended in the Rays catcher hitting a homer on a 3-2 fastball.

“That’s a great sign,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “He can be as dangerous as anybody in our lineup. He has unbelievable strength and bat speed that can flip balls out. We have a lot of guys that are trending in the right direction, and at the right time.”

Now that he’s in his second season with the Rays, Zunino says he feels a lot more comfortable and familiar with how the organization approaches things. Last spring, after coming over from the Mariners, Zunino spent most of his time trying to learn an entire pitching staff. In 2020, he has continued to build relationships with the staff, but the familiarity has allowed him to focus a little bit more on hitting.

“I think the biggest thing is that when I’m in the cage making adjustments, I understand how to get back to [the changes] if I may stray from them,” Zunino said. “To me that’s the biggest thing. To be able to make those adjustments a little bit quicker and be able to be closer to where I want to be for longer stretches.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.